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State: The Complete Series, The
Probably the best thing MTV's ever aired
Loves: Sketch comedy, The State
Likes: MTV in the early '90s
Dislikes: Music replacement
Hates: MTV now
While MTV occasionally offers up something worth watching, seemingly by accident, there was a time when they were on a hardcore winning streak, and that was the mid '90s, when the channel rolled the dice and managed to craft a truly unique and entertaining line-up with original series like Unplugged, The Maxx and, of course, The State. Handing the keys of a nationwide sketch comedy show to a gaggle of kids just out of college, whose biggest accomplishment to that point was working on the much-forgotten, yet prescient crowdsourcing series You Wrote It, You Watch It, was an actual programming risk, unlike airing yet another Laguna Hills series.
That risk paid off though, at least for those who watched it, as The State delivered three or so seasons of sketch genius that deserved a place alongside the true legends of the genre, mostly because they were from a new generation of comedy troupes who learned from the pioneers, but wanted to blaze their own trail, a group that included The Kids in the Hall and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Taking influences from Monty Python and adding a healthy helping of pop-culture flavor, The State bent the expectations for sketch comedy and yet managed to practice the art to near perfection, until an ill-advised move away from the comfort of MTV to the more corporate, less-nurturing CBS ended their show.
From the moment the unusual theme song kicks in, with it's rough, loud "Boys and girls...action! Action!", you know this show is something different. Utilizing links to move from sketch to sketch, filming with a mix of multiple camera and single camera shoots and mixing longer sketches with quick bits, the show built a legitimate sense of momentum that helped the group's absurd sensibility create a show where anything truly could happen. In a single episode you could have a slapstick-style food fight, a commercial parody, a kabuki scene, talking, vengeful seamonkeys and the story of a relationship with a toothbrush. There's no such thing as the prototypical The State sketch, with only the recurring character sketches bearing any resemblance to each other (and even those are parodies of recurring characters.)
All the credit obviously goes to the troupe, who wrote and performed everything, and the talent they brought to the show is obvious in the success so many of them have had in the years since the show left the air. Considering how organic the group's origins are, with them being college pals and improv group colleagues before getting the show, the variety of styles they bring to the table is surprising, with a bit of everything amongst the 10 guys, including the overwhelmingly funny Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon and Ken Marino, and an unbelievably versatile and hilarious lady in Kerri Kenney-Silver. Of course, with just one female member, drag is also a big part of their arsenal, with their technique coming in somewhere between Monty Python and the Kids in the Hall, as there's not a lot of an attempt to be feminine, but the women don't tend to be as grotesque as some of the females portrayed on the Flying Circus. Truthfully, unlike SNL or many other sketch shows, there's not a weak link in the bunch, with even the lesser-known stars, like Todd Holoubek and Kevin Allison, having their moments of brilliance and overall solid performances.
With hundreds of sketches included, it's hard to pick out a handful to highlight, without leaving out a ton of great ones, so instead focusing on the genres makes sense. The recurring characters, which were mostly foisted upon the group by MTV, looking to build popular bits, actually ended up becoming popular, despite making fun of the idea of a sketch built around a catchphrase. Thus we get several segments with Louie (Marino), a guy whose sole attribute is a desire to dip his (golf) balls in various items, and announcing that desire, along with teen rebel Doug (Michael Showalter), who is unable to cope with understanding authority figures, and busts out his own exit catchphrase (which itself is parodied in a sketch.) It's amazing how many times it feels like they are trying to not make a legitimate sketch, only to create a memorable one, like "The Animal Song," a bizarre musical scene, or the Barry and Levon bits, which center around $240 worth of pudding.
The show has aged surprisingly well, with bits that aren't hugely timely, though most of the MTV-focused segments, including an MTV Sports parody and several "Free Your Mind" commercials, may fall on the deaf ears and blind eyes of younger viewers. Making fun of talk shows, kids getting in trouble and sneakers that make piggy sounds when you step down on the heel are simply universal concepts, as is the extreme absurdism the show trades in. A commercial for cereal where everyone is at least mildly mentally retarded is an example of where this show is coming from, and that's just the first episode, as it just gets weirder from there, touching on monkey torture, dinnertime prayers for fratricide and Eastern European variety shows (the origin of the later Viva Variety series.) Having a line that's hard to cross, or no line at all, will go a long way toward helping you enjoy this series.
Just to start, according to The State's site, there were only three seasons on MTV, with the third being aired in two parts, but this set is broken up into four seasons. Considering the group was heavily involved with the discs, there's no reason to doubt this organization, but it is a bit weird. On the other hand, it made it easy to split the four seasons over four discs, with a fifth for more bonus material. The discs are held in a trio of black ThinPak cases, which are inside a loose-fitting slipcase that also holds a note from The State (explaining the music replacement (see The Quality for details,) and some promo inserts. The DVDs feature animated full-frame menus with options to play all the episodes, select shows, check out the bonus material and activate audio commentaries. There are no subtitles and no audio options, but closed captioning is available.
The episodes were remastered for re-release (on iTunes first and then on DVD) and the results are clear on these full-frame transfers, especially when you compare them to other shows from the early '90s. There's an odd inconsistency to the footage though, with some scenes looking like they were shot last week, with a clean image that sports bright, appropriate color and a good level of detail, while others look like home video I shot with my old Sears shoulder-mouth camcorder, with that distinct dull, soft look that only VHS does justice to. It's not even like you can compare in-studio to location shoots, as they vary in quality no matter where they were shot. No matter what you're looking at though, there's no obvious damage or compression artifacts, though there's a bit of blurring that's distracting, as copyrights are upheld on posters and such throughout the series.
The audio is presented in pretty standard Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks that do a fine job of recreating the early-'90s basic cable sound of the series, with clean dialogue and clear music, though there's nothing dynamic about the mix.
Now, about that music replacement... When the show aired, they were free to use a wide range of music due to deals MTV had with the major labels. So there were a lot of well-known music tracks throughout the series. Those deals didn't extend to video, so most of the music had to be replaced ("The Power" by Snap somehow slid through.) It's frequent, but, as the updates were done with the cooperation of the troupe, the creator of the rocking theme, Craig Wedren of Shudder to Think, was brought in to do fill-in tracks, and he's done an excellent job of recreating the feel of the original songs. The most memorable example of music in the series is probably the iconic use of The Breeders' "Cannonball" in the classic "Pants" sketch, but it's imitated with some heavy bass use to good effect. It's not ideal, but as noted in the packaging, the cost of the music would have prevented the DVDs from being released, and some rights were simply not available to them. The only real down note is the removal of a link sketch where the cast sang part of a Pearl Jam song, but only the most hardcore fans will miss it or notice its absence.
The main extra here is a massive one, as there's an audio commentary on all 24 episodes, with various combinations of the 11 cast members participating together in the room (with some on the phone.) There are times where they find themselves just watching, but for the most part they provide a good deal of background info about the sketching, including plenty of location notes, while there's a lot of joking around amongst these old friends. It's a treat to be able to watch the shows along with the cast, especially since they point out the majority of the music replacements, keeping you in the loop on what's changed.
Each of the four season discs has a set of classic interviews from the days of the show (check out that MTV News mic flag and the young Staters!,) plus a set tour by Black, for a total of just over 26 minutes of footage. They talk about basic topics like how the group started, the characters they play and their catchphrases, and though the nostalgia is nice, perspective would have been better, though I guess the commentaries help cover that.
Also spread across the four discs are over 17 minutes of outtakes, which can be viewed individually or all together. There's some funny bits in this pile of goof-ups and extended scenes, but you'll be sitting through a lot of material that most would consider just OK. You'll find even more unseen footage on the fifth disc, which has a collection of 43 unaired sketches and another six minutes of outtakes. The unaired sketches, of which there are a whopping 91 minutes of, come from across the show's several seasons, and are available with optional commentary by Allison, Holoubek, Joe Lo Truglio, Michael Patrick Jann, Marino, Showalter and David Wain. Several of these bits were better off excised, and the commentators freely admit that, but then there are sketches like the bizarre "Drag Dad," "Porno Sex Lover" and "Tar Baby" which are simply too good to have been unseen so long.
For those interested in seeing how the show first looked, which isn't too far off from what made it to air, the pilot episode has been included, with optional commentary by the same crew from the unaired sketches. Some of these bits made it into the show, the classic "Hormones" sketch was reshot, and some just went away, making this a show most fans will want to look at. The same goes for some special appearances included on this disc, including an appearance on MTV's The Jon Stewart Show, a dirty little sketch from a 1996 Spring Break special, Shut Up & Laugh, Panama City (with bonus awkward hosting by Norm McDonald), an assortment of "Spring Break Safety Tips" and a poorly-produced '80s-style music video from an MTV Christmas Party. There's also over 12 minutes of promos for the series, which are a lot of fun, especially the first one, "Miserable Crap," which uses the show's bad early reviews, and a bunch of amusing "Next on The State" commercials, which work on numerous levels, as each cast member gets to do their bit, while the others goof around in the background.
If there's anything I simply love the fifth disc for, it's the redux of the theme song that plays on the main menu. It's "Boys and Girls," done by boys and girls. Brilliant.
The Bottom Line
Incredibly, The State remains truly hilarious, even with the dual demons of timeliness and music copyrights working against it, thanks to a fantastically funny gang of creators working with a relative level of freedom. After years of hoping by fans, a complete collection of episodes has finally arrived, and it looks and sounds very nice (despite many changed music cues), while packing some impressive extras to boot. Though the music and blurs are frustrating, I can't think of anything else I could ask for in this set, aside from the CBS special, which is likely a rights issue (though aren't they all Viacom now?) As such, I feel I have to give this the highest rating possible, if only for finally fulfilling the wishes of so many. It's a fantastic walk down memory lane for longtime fans, and a chance for a new generation of fans to dip their balls in The State.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.